As I dipped in and out of social media and various texting apps yesterday, I was encouraged and cajoled by one post after another to use a particular hashtag because it would effortlessly pump money into “mental health” on a giant telecom’s dime…or in this case, nickel. What could possibly be wrong with seeing some of the millions of dollars in extraordinarily high rates Canadians pay for cell service, turned over to a good cause? Nothing. If you put it that way. It’s a charitable donation this corporation easily makes given its annual net revenue of about three billion dollars. I’m not going to add my opinions to the debate about whether it’s philanthropy or advertising. I'm not going to criticize the good intentions of anyone who feels that signalling on social media helps to recognize mental illness for the scourge it is. But as someone who has felt the rusty and ragged blade of mental illness in my life, I think I’ve accumulated some battle scars that give me enough insight to know that a nickel – even multiplied a billion times – and a succinct prescriptive catch phrase, isn’t going to cut it. If the goal truly is to change hearts and minds about mental illness, making it as easy and self-satisfying as a “LIKE” button or a smiley face emoji for just one day, is going to have about the same results you’d expect when people share cat videos. I have no doubt the money that’s eventually turned over in bits and pieces to the thoroughly vetted projects and programs will do some good. But if that’s true, and if the results are really evidence-based, then surely the biggest potential benefit of the company’s exercise is to demonstrate that more public money needs to be spent on treating mental illness.
The company says that since it began its annual ad campaign “87% of Canadians reported (my emphasis) that they are more aware (my emphasis) of mental health issues.” I’m not sure what that really means. I like to think I’m reasonably intelligent, well read, and generally up on things. I was aware of PTSD and Depression before these annual company fund-raisers began 8 years ago. I certainly was aware of PTSD when I was first diagnosed with it in 2014. That doesn’t mean I understood it. That doesn’t mean I knew how to deal with it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t discover a health care system that at times treated mental illness like a hang nail. When your doctor tells you there’s a year-long waiting list to see a psychiatrist, your first thought isn’t that a telecom’s ad campaign has somehow misled you. I learned that the only people, who really get it, are the people who’ve lived with it. And as someone who’s lived with it myself, I can tell you that some people – some people - who proudly hashtag their support for “the cause” every year, hover between “you seem OK”, and “what’s wrong with you?” A few others have even challenged my diagnosis, treatment and condition, perhaps relying subconsciously on their hashtag degrees in mental illness. I’m sorry if you’ve been told that “talking” about mental illness is the key to dealing with it. In my opinion, it’s not. The truth is a lot messier and takes more than a single day once a year of casually retweeting a corporate slogan. For a start, it’s about adequately funding treatment for mental illness. But at the personal level, it’s about acceptance. It’s about listening. It’s about believing. It’s about patience. It’s about counting your blessings if mental illness has never descended on you.
The last few weeks, as people have asked about Blamed and Broken, I’ve explained that writing the book was a kind of therapy that helped to keep me focused and replenish my own confidence as a journalist after going through some very dark times personally. The book was also a Rosetta stone of sorts for me, because it is itself a blueprint of the mental damage caused by events that began on October 14, 2007. It was ten years ago this month that the hearings into the death of Robert Dziekanski began. Ten years ago that I began listening to the testimony at the Braidwood Inquiry. To this day there are many who believe that Braidwood’s condemnation of the four Mounties involved in Dziekanski’s death was deserved and every word of scorn and disbelief the retired appeal court judge would eventually summon upon them was just. I am not one of them. I could not have written Blamed and Broken if I was. I am not a judge. I am not a lawyer. I am a journalist with both the luxury and the obligation to consider that what’s served up for me, may not be the whole story. It may not even be the true story. The only way for any of us to be certain about what we believe is to become engaged with the issue ourselves. It’s the same regardless of whether it’s the conceit of a hashtag or the presumption of guilt.